Speaking of Women's Rights: On The Long, Long Road, A Notable Milestone

Thursday, August 26, 2010

On The Long, Long Road, A Notable Milestone

They call today “Women’s Equality Day,” because 90 years ago on August 26th the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution became effective, and women in this country were granted the right to vote. And while I proudly shout “Huzzah!” (as Susan B. Anthony or Emmeline Pankhurst might have done), that jubilation is somewhat muted by the knowledge that we have not come as far as those pioneering women expected we would by now, and by the fact that so much remains to do.

But first, some celebratory background: This video notes that although the U.S. as a nation did not grant women the right to vote until 1920 (women’s war work and increasing education and independence having pushed things toward success), several states, including Idaho (1896), Washington (1910), Oregon (1912), Alaska (1913) and Montana (1914) extended the franchise to women before the 19th Amendment passed. Not that it was easy: in Washington alone, there were efforts from the very beginning of the Territory in 1854, and several passed, only to be rescinded the next time the legislature met. (Couldn’t make up your minds, eh, gentlemen?)

Even as the national effort in the United States was building, as shown in this fun edu-cartoon (though I'm going to assume the robot is female, just because) women were getting the vote in other countries: New Zealand in 1893, Australia (partially) in 1902, various European countries in the first two decades of the 20th century. Don’t get too excited, though: there are still at least six places in which women do not have the right; extra credit if you guess the one NOT in the Middle East or the Asian continent.

Progress, indeed. But being able to vote does not denote equality. In fact, it’s pretty widely acknowledged that we are a long way from true equality. That’s even more apparent when you start looking for responses to the anniversary of suffrage or the perceived (let alone actual) state of equality. Let me get this straight: yes, I’ve heard before that women want to stay home and care for their children, so pay inequity is their own fault, but that wanting equity is greedy and Scrooge-like? Come on, U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- get real!

The seeming retreat nationally on women’s right to control their own reproduction is another sign we have work to do. (Didn’t we do that before? Oh, right: some fun never ends.)

What’s more, close analysis of the opposition to gay marriage reveals deeply embedded gender stereotyping and the desire to restrict not only women’s decision-making, but their roles in society. Ultimately, those opposing marriage between people of the same sex are hawking their view of what a ‘normal’, desirable relationship is, and believe me, it doesn’t include full female independence and autonomy. Rather, that world view relies on inequality and power imbalance. And that’s just not the way the world is anymore. But that too will change. As Judge Vaughn Walker said in his thorough, well-reasoned, fully-supported ruling: Marriage under law is a union of equals.

Still, notwithstanding the remaining challenges, we can pause today, pay tribute to those women (and some brave men) who fought, first for the abolition of slavery, and then for women’s suffrage, and who triumphed on this day in 1920. Thank you, Susan, Elizabeth, Lucretia, Belva, Emmeline, Christabel, Alice, Emily . . . I hope you are resting in peace.